Writing and speaking come from different parts of the brain, study shows

New research indicates that writing and speaking are "two quasi-independent language systems in the brain."

New research indicates that writing and speaking are “two quasi-independent language systems in the brain.”

(Daniel Fishel / For The Times)

Written and spoken language can exist separately in the brain, a new study from Johns Hopkins shows. The study looked at stroke victims with aphasia that impaired their communication capabilities in one way but not the other.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins, Rice and Columbia universities studied five stroke patients with aphasia, difficulty communicating after their strokes. Four could speak but not write sentences that took a certain form -- the study focused on affixes, such as the “-ing” in “jumping” -- while the last could write those sentences but not speak them.

“Actually seeing people say one thing and -- at the same time -- write another is startling and surprising,” Johns Hopkins cognitive science professor Brenda Rapp told the website Futurity. “We don’t expect that we would produce different words in speech and writing. It’s as though there were two quasi-independent language systems in the brain.”


Futurity, a nonprofit website that shares university research, explains, “While writing evolved from speaking, the two brain systems are now so independent that someone who can’t speak a grammatically correct sentence aloud may be able write it flawlessly.”

The study, titled “Modality and Morphology: What We Write May Not Be What We Say,” was published in the journal Psychological Science. The abstract summarizes, “The findings reveal that written- and spoken-language systems are considerably independent from the standpoint of morpho-orthographic operations. Understanding this independence of the orthographic system in adults has implications for the education and rehabilitation of people with written-language deficits.”

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